Methodist Serves as Britain’s First Black Cabinet Minister

Jan 14, 2003 12:25 PM EST

LONDON - Fifteen years ago, when Labor Party politician, civil rights lawyer and Methodist lay preacher Paul Boateng became one of the first persons of color elected to Parliament, he was seen as a young firebrand.

Today, he is one of Britain's most senior government officials, a minister in Tony Blair's elite Cabinet, and by all accounts, as formidable and articulate a politician as you are likely to meet.

But he would have to be in order to fight his way through a legacy of discrimination and prejudice that has effectively barred blacks from public office in Britain until recently. To date, only 37 out of some 1,400-plus members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons are of African, Caribbean or South Asian descent.

While Boateng has struggled his entire political career to be seen first as an effective politician, his appointment as Britain's first black Cabinet minister last May attracted much attention, in part, because of the color of his skin. One of 31 Methodists in Parliament, he serves as the chief secretary to the treasury, working closely with the powerful chancellor of the exchequer on government spending. It's the job a BBC journalist called one of the most demanding in the British government.

"This is a vocation," Boateng told United Methodist News Service in a recent interview. "It's a privilege to serve and to be called to service."

The Rev. Victor Watson, a retired Methodist minister and longtime friend, said Boateng makes no bones about the Christian faith that shapes his work as an elected representative and government minister.

"His faith informs his political life," he explained. "In politics, it's very difficult to maintain one's own integrity and understanding of the imperative of the Gospel on issues of freedom and fairness and the gap between rich and poor. ... Paul is not afraid to say where he stands."

A succession of appointments to government leadership roles in areas such as health, prisons, and young people has made it clear that Boateng's political star has been rising for some time. Still, his appointment by the prime minister to the Blair Cabinet marks an historic political as well as personal milestone.

"This achievement was long overdue," commented Naboth Muchopa, the British Methodist Church's secretary for race relations.

Only in the last 50 years have the numbers of black people in Britain been large enough to make a critical difference at the polls, he explained. But Muchopa also observed that while Boateng has had to live with the reality of discrimination against blacks in Britain, he consistently has fought a broader battle against inequality affecting people from a wide range of social, economic, religious and racial backgrounds.

"The whole concept of equality and justice is really where (Paul's) heart is," said Muchopa. "Paul says, 'I don't do what I do because I'm black; I do what I do because there's something we need to do.'"

Boateng was born in Hackney, East London, in 1951 to a Ghanaian father and a Scottish mother. The family moved to Ghana when he was a boy, and his father eventually became a cabinet minister in Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah government.

When a coup d'etat toppled that government in 1966, Boateng's father was imprisoned and Paul, his mother and younger sister fled to England. In a United Methodist Communications documentary for NBC television, Boateng recalled being forced to stand up in front of his school class the day after his father's arrest and told that his father deserved to be shot. Reflecting on that experience, he said, "Political life has never held any illusions. I never believed it was going to be anything but very tough."

Boateng eventually studied law and in the 1970s began work at one of the leading trade union and civil liberties law firms in London. During this time, he became very involved in Labor Party politics. He also began attending services at the Walworth Methodist Church at the invitation of Watson, the church's pastor. Boateng and his wife, Janet, were married there, and the couple baptized all five of their children as Methodists.

Although he was raised in the Anglican Church, Boateng said he has stuck with the Methodism over the last three decades because it incorporates those Anglican roots but also something else.

"Methodism at its best brings a vigor through vision, mission and song that the Anglican Church needs," he reflected. "Methodism brings a dimension of witness in the community that is precious. It is radical, risk-taking; it's on the cutting edge. ... I like being a part of it."

Rachel Lampart, secretary for parliamentary and political affairs for the British Methodist Church, observed Boateng's fearlessness in publicly embracing his faith during the annual Labor Party conference. Lampart and British Methodism's then president, Inderjit Bhogal, were chatting over coffee with Boateng in a busy bar in the conference hotel.

"Paul asked Rev. Bhogal at the end of the meeting, 'will you pray?'" Lampart recounted. "And we all stood in a circle at the bar - the place where all the whispering, lobbying and gossiping was going on around us - with this government minister and a bloke in a dog collar praying."

"I can't imagine putting my faith in a little box to be opened only in private among consenting adults on Sunday," Boateng told UMNS. "Some regard (my faith) as quaint, eccentric, a bit suspicious. So be it."

Boateng believes the church must have a "prophetic vision" and challenge government and society on the big issues of material and spiritual poverty and social alienation. He is clear this role requires action, not just words, and encourages churches to "get in there with that vision and witness and form partnerships" with government and other organizations working for change.

"In the aftermath of 9-11 the world is indivisible," he said. "We can't allow issues of security and development around globalization to go unanswered. We have to find a way forward to help those in poverty to find a way to live better. Poverty is a scar on our world. The battle against poverty is something that can bring people together."

Concern and passion for social change is one thing. Maintaining the power that allows you to make hard decisions in a world with limited resources is another. Surviving the rough and tumble of political life inevitably will mean making choices that draw fire and criticism.

"With the first wave of (black politicians), unless you played the system, you wouldn't get to ministerial status," commented Simon Woolley, national coordinator for Britain's Operation Black Vote. His organization uses the term "black" to refer to people of African, Caribbean and South Asian descent. "Some in the black community have been disappointed because Boateng refuses to wear his color on his sleeve. They see it as a denial of the struggle."

In the 1980s, Boateng played a key role in dismantling the Britain's national black caucus, maintaining that black politicians needed to be "mainstream" to be effective.

"Unlike black American politicians who, through their caucus, have had the space to talk about black concerns, black politicians here are disparate, easily picked off by their political masters. ... The dawn of the expected deluge of more black politicians never did happen," Woolley said

The British political establishment forces black politicians to choose between being multi-issue representatives or single-issue "black" politicians, he said.

"Boateng is without a doubt one of the most articulate politicians in government. He has crossed swords with the best, and we are proud of him. I just wish he would be more publicly vocal in addressing black issues," Woolley concluded.

Political observer Lampart pointed out that Christians can't avoid politics just because it can be tough. She admires Boateng's decision to get in there and get his hands dirty, just as the Good Samaritan did.

"Politics is the broad picture of how we're going to live together, the kind of decision we take as a community," she said. "Christians can't opt out."

Paul Boateng has opted in - in a big way.

*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

By Kathleen LaCamera*